South Korea: President Ahn?

South Korean politics needs a shake-out, and independents like Ahn Cheol-soo are poised to provide one.

In December 2012 South Koreans vote for a new President. And progressively, "attitudes towards the present clutch of politicians range from apathy to disgust" reports The Economist. Corruption ranks highly, with Transparency International rating South Korea at world No.39 in its Corruption Perception Index. By comparison Singapore ranks joint No.1, Hong Kong at No.13, Japan at No.17 and Taiwan at No. 33. An outsider like Ahn Cheol-soo presents a fresh, dynamic approach at a time of global popular revival as evidenced by the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall St. demos against American corporate greed, Amazon road protests in Bolivia, and the 15-M Movement in Spain. South Koea's revolution may take the form of a democratic earthquake, by contrast.

A friend who recently visited Seoul reported that the country was humming with retail activity and a thriving economy. Yet perceptions can sometimes differ from reality, for South Koreans are increasingly concerned about income inequalities and the relentless rise in the cost of basic items. This is a country dominated by huge family owned chaelbols, conglomerates like Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai. And Ahn is a self-made millionaire who built his fortune founding an antivirus software business.

He had sought the Mayoralty of Seoul, but has since dropped out of the race, instead endorsing another independent Park Won-soon, a social reformer. The pattern is set as Park has zoomed into front-running status. And 49-year old Ahn is now predicted to run for his nation's highest office. He is viewed as an outsider by people perhaps justified in feeling suppressed by political and corporate cartels. This is a conservative society by and large, being very homogenous and subject to strong traditions. Stepping out of line is unusual, yet in these times of global economic and social uncertainty a challenge from a viable left-of-field candidate could inspire confidence and break the mould.

Ahn's competition in the race for the Blue House consists of:
  • the ruling conservative Grand National Party thwarted by continuous factional infighting, and
  • the left-of-centre yet nationalistic opposition Democratic Party, "hampered by poor leadership and a confused message" according to The Economist.
The candidate of the Grand National Party is the influential Park Geun-hye, a National Assembly member and Chair of her party's Supreme Council. She is a daughter of President Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1969 until his assassination in 1979. Older voters appear to like her and she's polling favourite to succeed incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. The Democratic Party contender might be its leader, 63-year old Son Hak-gyu, an ex-provincial governor with an Oxford doctorate.

There appears to be a gaping hole in the South Korean political centre for a vigorous reformer, and Ahn is a charismatic high-achiever with a successful business track record. He was educated at the Seoul National University, the University of Pensylvania and Wharton. He then researched computer antivirus software programs at Dankook University Hospital before resigning to set up AhnLab, which has since become South Korea's largest computer security firm.

Some speculate that Ahn's candidacy would spark recollections of the populist upsurge which swept Roh Moo-hyun into office in 2002. Korea has a history of political earthquakes. And Ahn's academic and commercial successes might attract popular support from the aspiring yet presently frustrated electorate. For this is a country of industrious people, now sick of corruption and government policy failures.

Could Ahn achieve the seemingly impossible? Koreans are noted for their impressive ambition, and Ahn is an example of one who achieved the Korean dream. It is this which might be enough to propel him to power.

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